Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve identified some common questions about web form design. The short answers are provided here; and longer ones are available, of course, in the book.

  1. Why does Web form design matter?
    Forms enable commerce, communities, and productivity on the Web to thrive. If you are in online retail, your goal is to sell things. But standing in the way of your products and your customers is a checkout form. If you are developing social software, your goal is to grow your community. Standing in between you and community members is a form. If you’ve built a productivity-based Web application, forms enable key interactions that let people create and manage content.
  2. How should I organize my Web form—within one Web page or across several?
    Who is filling the form in and why? Answering this up front allows us to think about our forms as a deliberate conversation instead of the inputs for a database. When you approach forms as a conversation, natural breaks will emerge between topics. When these distinct topics are short enough to fit into a few sections, a single Web page will probably work best to organize them. When each section begins to run long, multiple Web pages may be required to break up the conversation into meaningful, understandable topics.
  3. If my form spans several Web pages, do I tell people what page they’re on?
    When the questions that need to be answered before a Web form is complete are spread across multiple Web pages, you may want to include an overview of the number of Web pages involved (scope), an indication of what page you are on (position), and a way to save and return to your progress (status). Though closely integrated, these three progress indicators perform different functions.
  4. Should I top-, right-, or left-align the labels for input fields?
    When you are trying to reduce completion times or if you need flexible label lengths for localization, consider top-aligned labels. When you have similar goals but vertical screen real estate constraints, consider right-aligned labels. When your form requires people to scan labels to learn what’s required or to answer a few specific questions out of many, consider left-aligned labels.
  5. How are smart defaults used in Web forms?
    Smart defaults can help people answer questions by putting default selections in place that serve the interests of most people. There are many opportunities within Web forms to utilize the power of smart defaults to reduce the number of choices people have to make and thereby expedite form completion.
  6. When should I include help text on my forms?
    You should consider adding help text when: forms ask for unfamiliar data; people question why they are being asked for specific data; people may be concerned about the security or privacy of their data; there are recommended ways of providing data; and certain data fields are optional or required when the bulk of the form is not.
  7. How should I indicate required input fields?
    If most of the inputs on a form are required, indicate the few that are optional. If most of the inputs on a form are optional, indicate the few that are required. When indicating what form fields are either required or optional, text is the most clear. However, the * symbol is relatively well understood to mean required.
  8. What’s the difference between a primary and secondary action?
    Actions such as Submit, Save, or Continue are intended to enable completion, which is the primary goal of just about anyone who has started filling in a form. As a result, they are often referred to as primary actions. Secondary actions, on the other hand, tend to be less utilized.

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